"Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening..."
So writes Italo Calvino, in one of the more ethereal experimental books he wrote. While not as weird as a book made up of tarot card adventures, "Invisible Cities" is a story that defies easy classification -- it's soft, dreamlike narrative in which one man tells another about the magical cities he's seen. Or, possibly, has not seen.
The famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo arrives in the empire of Kublai Khan, and the two men become friends. In the evenings, Marco tells the Khan of many fabulous cities -- the grey metal and stone Fedora, the stilted Zenobia, the haunted moonlit Zobeide, the sensual and bejeweled Anastasia, the cloud-straddling Baucis, the watery Esmeralda, a city of dead people known as Adelma, the dirt-choked Argia, the hazy rose-tinted Irene, and many others.
"Invisible Cities" isn't really a story so much as a series of beautiful pictures-in-prose. It's like we're watching Calvino paint us portraits of his fantasy cities with his words -- and except for Kublai Khan and Marco Polo occasionally conversing about trade, travel or chess, there is no actual plot here. It's just gorgeous portraits of imaginary cities.
And therein lies its charm. Calvino came up with dozens of fantastical cities in here. Few if any of them could actually exist, but they are so suffused with sensual beauty ("its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim...") and darkness ("All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities...") that you don't care.
Instead, Calvino comes up with strange, weird and illogical ideas, such as a city with ho actual buildings, but lots of plumbing. There are cities of the dead and the unborn; cities of the sea, the air, the earth and the sunrise; cities where everyone is a stranger and steampunk cities rusted into oblivion. It's like he's opened a hundred doors to eerie other worlds, and let us take a single picture of each before the doors close.
"Invisible Cities" is not a book for people who like plot -- instead, it's a chance to immerse yourself in Italo Calvino's magical language and imagination.